Games

The Heart of an Empress: The Surveillance State and 'Dishonored'

Somehow we are to assume that this Empress is some kind of benevolent monarch by contrast to those who killed her, but I'm not exactly sure.

Dishonored features an interesting method of conveying information, background, and characterization in a game space in the form of an undead, mechanical, but still beating heart. When the player (from the perspective of bodyguard turned assassin, Corvo Attano), wields this mystical heart, aiming it at NPCs in the game, the heart will whisper secrets about those individuals.

This seems a particularly useful narrative vehicle for an action-oriented title, giving the player the opportunity to explore the stories and backgrounds of characters that are often treated rather superficially in games. Even the random thugs that Corvo and the player will spend their time dispatching in droves, all have histories, families, and pasts, fleshing out what is usually treated as merely a series of objects to maim and kill in the endless shooting galleries that such games frequently devolve into.

Speculation, of course, surrounds the former identity of the heart, mostly concerning the possibility of it being the embodiment of the spirit of the Empress that Corvo failed to protect as bodyguard and whose goal it is to avenge. This thesis seems sound given that the heart and the Empress are both voiced by actress, April Stewart, suggesting that they are intended to be seen as an extension of the Empress following her death (and, indeed, the heart is not available until after the Empress dies). There are other reasons to draw this conclusion as well, which have been fairly well documented, related to how the heart describes its past relationship to some of the primary characters in the plot.

Working under that assumption, though, I find myself slightly troubled by the heart and its use in the overall narrative context of the game as opposed to how it operates purely as a means of conveying information about the story.

One of the premises that Dishonored seems to ask the player to take for granted in assuming the role of Corvo, who will be ferreting out the corrupt officials that are truly responsible for the assassination of the Empress, is that the previous regime was a benevolent one. We are introduced to the Empress's young daughter early in the game, which tugs at our heartstrings, providing a vulnerable object to feel protective of throughout the game and to associate with her mother and the pathos of losing her. Then, we are introduced to the Empress herself, who gushingly speaks of her admiration of Corvo (and, of, course, us, as players), who she describe as the only person “who makes her feel safe,” before she is murdered by assassins.

Somehow we are to assume that this Empress is some kind of benevolent monarch by contrast to those who killed her, but I'm not exactly sure -- beyond the pathos of this brief introduction to her -- if there is any rational reasons provided to do so. I know so little of her actual politics and how she has executed her obligations to her people in the past.

Honestly, though, part of the reason that this thought concerned me is that I have found myself a little put off by the politics represented in games of late and the manner in which the player is blithely assigned a “side” in a political conflict without fully understanding the dynamics of the politics in the first place. I have spoken over the last few months rather glowingly of the sci-fi mini-roguelike, FTL, for example, but I do have to say that the game's premise -- that I am an agent of “the Federation” attempting to keep important military intelligence out of the hands of what are called “the Rebels” -- vaguely troubling.

This division into sides is of little concern in terms of playing and enjoying the game, which is more focused on resource management and space battles than in developing a robust story alongside those aspects of play. However, it may be my own penchant towards classically liberal and libertarian attitudes speaking, but I feel vaguely discomforted by even the narrative premise of working for what I perceive to be “the man” (the Federation) against what I might in other circumstances view as the symbols of liberty (the Rebels). Also, given the resources and manpower of the Rebels in FTL compared to the shoestring fleet that the Federation is fielding in opposition to them, I find myself wondering if the cause of the Rebels might be well worth fighting for, given that so much of the galaxy seems to have gathered around them to “fight the power,” as it were.

I have a similar kind of response to the notion of being in the employ of an Empress, seemingly an empire builder that I would normally assume is more interested in centralizing power, rather than in protecting the autonomy of nationhood or even individuals. And the truth is that the heart and the way that it works in the game makes me feel no better about this idea.

If one assumes that the Empress is benevolent, I guess one could interpret the fact that this thing, which seems to house the spirit of that former monarch, represents the “heart” of a good and noble leader, concerned with all of her subjects, so much so that she knows and can articulate their innermost thoughts and desires.

However, this smacks of a creepy kind of paternalism to me. Why is the heart prying into every nook and cranny of the psyches of every citizen of the empire? The kind of voyeurism that the heart provides feels more like the kind of surveillance justified by paternalistic states that claim to want to protect us by knowing where we are, who we are with, what our relationships to other people are, and the like. Throughout the game, as it began dawning on me that the heart probably is intended to be representative of the former Empress, I began to think that it was something like the political version of a helicopter parent, coddling and smothering in its benevolence and sensitivity.

What difference did it make in knowing my enemies and my own allies most guarded secrets, except to ultimately treat that information as intelligence that could be used against them in future if necessary? The heart had made Corvo and myself into a roving surveillance drone, seeking out data, not creating empathy for characters in a drama. After all, nearly everyone in Dishonored eventually becomes an antagonist in some form or another. This is a game of tactics about a man with a bagful of mystical tricks that even the odds, not about seeking how to better understand one another.

In this regard, I long for a better understanding of what Corvo and I are walking into in the first place in the game. While audiologs and texts also pervade the world and provide details about its culture and social structure, I still never felt like I met the Empress long enough to get to know her and consider how I felt about Corvo being in her service. I just want to understand the place of the character in the context of the world in order to begin to know if I am judging the Empress too harshly or not. Unfortunately, the context that it seems to be placing me in, as an agent of empire, is one that is treated too ambiguously to decide whether Corvo and my own efforts will be worthwhile in the end, or if I have just been seeking to destroy one new surveillance state for the sake of the traditions of another.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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